Don’t look now, but 2024 Republicans who have been exceedingly loath to criticize Donald Trump for his classified documents indictment appear to be easing their way toward doing so.

Slowly and very cautiously, of course.

The GOP’s reaction to the indictment has generally been to focus more upon the supposed double standard in the justice system and the purported “weaponization” of the government, while avoiding addressing the merits of the case against Trump (even to defend him). But the merits have begun to seep into their commentary.

On Monday afternoon, both Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley went further than they had before in suggesting that maybe Trump actually did something wrong. Scott called it a “serious case with serious allegations,” while Haley later said on Fox News, “If this indictment is true, if what it says is actually the case, President Trump was incredibly reckless with our national security.”

Both layered their commentary with allusions to the idea that the process was unfair. Scott cited the idea that the justice system was “targeting and hunting Republicans.” Haley also took care to argue that, “The DOJ and FBI have lost all credibility with the American people.”

“Two things can be true at the same time,” Haley prefaced her comments by saying.

But to this point, among well-known 2024 hopefuls, only Trump critics New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (“devastating”) and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (calling for Trump to drop out) have gone further.

Still, others have seemingly left the door ajar to going after Trump’s actions more directly — at some point.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also criticized the process over the weekend, but on Friday he said that if he had taken classified documents while serving in the military, “I would have been court-martialed in a New York minute.”

Former vice president Mike Pence has also tacitly conceded that it’s possible the evidence is just that significant, saying before the indictment that, “I don’t know the facts of the former president’s case.” He has also repeatedly emphasized that “No one is above the law” — the unstated implication being that this includes Trump.

None of it is the kind of full-throated denunciation we saw from Republicans in the case of Hillary Clinton and her private email server back in 2016. Back then, for instance, Scott said that Clinton had “put our national security and classified information at risk.” DeSantis said that Clinton “put her own interests before her duties to the law and national security.”

And the fact that Republicans feel the need to layer these comments with criticisms of the process that brought about Trump’s indictment is telling. All of them still live in fear of going too far in criticizing Trump — and potentially alienating his supporters — even as he’s the man they all need to defeat to win the GOP presidential nomination.

But it’s apparent that there is a desire to make an issue of the indictment that they’ve thus far kept at arm’s length.

What these reactions seem to presuppose is that these Republicans can have their cake and eat it too — that they can be highly critical of the process and feed into the idea that maybe it’s a witch hunt, while urging people to take the fruits of the same process seriously.

More than anything, though, these statements should be seen as trial balloons, seeing how much the GOP base is willing to countenance the idea that its hero might have actually done something wrong.

What’s clear is that it’s an argument that needs making to take Trump down. Post-indictment polling, after all, shows many more Republican primary voters are concerned about this case being politically motivated (76 percent) than about the national security risk Trump posed (12 percent). The rest (12 percent) cited both.

Unless those latter numbers change, these candidates probably won’t have a chance anyway.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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